A spectral glossary of critical tourism by Jurij Dobriakov

January 22, 2014
Author Jurij Dobriakov
Published in Review from Lithuania

image 1

The figures of ‘tourist’ and ‘vagabond’ mark the two poles of a continuum along which our life and our expectations are plotted.  

The Tourist Syndrome: Adrian Franklin interviews Zygmunt Bauman

Prologue: lost in residency

In February 2013, I spent a week reading books loosely related to the theme of critical tourism at Nida Art Colony. ((In February 2013, I spent a week reading books loosely related to the theme of critical tourism at Nida Art Colony.)) The formal reason behind this reading residency was the fact that, while the Colony had a neat library containing a solid bunch of titles that should be of interest to anyone interested in things like place, locality, mobility, tourism, site-specificity etc., most artists didn’t take (or didn’t have) time to read them. So someone had to do it for the artists. As the Inter-format symposium on critical tourism, site-specificity and post-romantic condition was approaching, the thematic scope of my reading residency was set to tourism and its theoretical reflections.

Yet I was not just reading about tourism. In several senses, I was a tourist myself – and not just in the sense of being displaced, for a certain period, to the picturesque remote locality of the Colony, although that was perhaps the most obvious and dominant layer (the timing was perfect: the frame of one week ensured that I was neither a random visitor who had come for just one day nor someone who could call Nida his home – in fact, I think very few people can call it that actually, even when they have spent several years there). I also realized that, squeezed into such a short (and objectively conditioned – even a week away from the city is a bit of a luxury for me today, unfortunately) timespan, my reading itself was quite touristic in nature. Much like a tourist visiting a foreign land or city, I had to get my sense of direction, to determine quickly what a certain book was about (just as we wish to know what a particular country “is about” the first time we go there, consulting all sorts of guides and maps), in order to find my way around it with limited time resources. I was, thus, a reading tourist of sorts.

Furthermore, I got an insight into the way artist residency worked, only to find that the tourist principle was at work here as well – not just in the fact that the artists were temporarily located in a “foreign” (and explicitly tourism-oriented) location, but also in the nature of interaction between the artists-in-residency themselves and their contacts with other visitors to the Colony. I got an impression that under such conditions of temporally compressed communication (one only sees and coexists with other artists, staff members and guests for several days to several months, which can roughly be compared to encounters at airports – and artist residency centres are, indeed, not unlike airport hubs for nomadic artists), resident artists felt tempted to ask their peers and other people in transit the very same question: What are you about? What do you do? What are the distinctive features of your practice? It seems that when we meet people for a limited time and want to make this meeting “productive” (to extract some knowledge from it), we are bound to ask for directions around the person we meet, to demand a “rough guide” to the person. This does not necessarily mean that such encounters are superficial or lack the potential for further depth, but it certainly says something about the nature of co-existence at artist residency centres and, by extension, about our “liquid modernity”, to use Zygmunt Bauman’s terminology (which will be expanded upon further in this text).

image 2

The aforementioned experiences did not really impede my reading; rather, they enhanced it and provided additional contextual layers. Reading the same set of books at home would have been a substantially different experience. I could say these circumstances worked together to create a kind of site-specific reading on tourism and mobility while staying at a place that was both very static – because of the general off-season in Nida – and highly mobile due to the temporary and “liquid” nature of its inhabitants. This reading process was very intensive and relaxed at the same time, and took place in my mind during walks in the re-encountered and re-cognised Nida landscape surrounding the Colony just as much as did under the reading light in my spacious room in the Colony’s residency space.

But how to present the knowledge obtained (quite intimately) as a result of this reading residency to others? First of all, it must be acknowledged that my reading was very fragmentary and inconsistent due to temporal constraints and natural (landscape and social) distractions. Most of the time I had to skim instead of reading closely, and it was only when the text really engaged me that I plunged deeper into it. Thus, any kind of report on this experience will inevitably be fragmentary and incomplete as well, a kind of schematic skimming through some of the central notions in the theory of tourism, a framework that the reader will have to fill with more concrete content himself. In fact, it is more of a report on getting (creatively) lost than a set of rigid directions for finding one’s way in the field of tourism. Besides, it is quite personal and subjective, a reflection of my own impressions and reactions, and not just a set of impersonal and “objective” summaries of the books read. Let’s call it a spectral glossary of critical tourism.

Why “spectral”? I make use of both of this term’s connotations here. First, the notions outlined in the glossary are not unitary, as is usual in most glossaries, but are instead presented as pairs of extremes or opposites that mark the ends of certain spectra, within which the act of critical tourism takes place. I believe that when we think about the figure of the critical tourist, we must necessarily place it in a spectrum with numerous possible intermediate positions, rather than at any single determined point. But this figure is also spectre-like and hard to pin down or define clearly. What exactly is critical tourism? Can it still be called tourism at all if it is undertaken (self-)critically (since the practice of tourism as it is known today is pretty much firmly associated precisely with the lack of critical agency), or must it be given an altogether different name? Just how critical and self-conscious can a tourist or a travelling artist be? Thus, a critical tourism reader must also be critical of the very concept of critical tourism as well.

image 3


distance <––––––> intimacy

For most conventional tourists, contact with the locals is usually very limited. There is a certain distance between the visitors, who observe the day-to-day life of the local population, and those who know the local ways and codes, even if they share the same physical space. “To hang out with the locals” and thereby get rid of the inevitable alienation one feels when arriving in a new destination is perhaps one of the ultimate desires of tourists, and one that is often tough to satisfy, as the locals tend to be wary of the random travellers they might meet in the public space. Paula Bialski, in her text for the Transient Spaces publication, introduces the term “intimate tourism” to describe the alternative form of travelling and staying that was brought about by new online platforms like Couchsurfing. In this way, one can experience life in a foreign country through the eyes of a local who is willing to welcome a complete stranger asking for a few days and nights of lodging. This period of stay presupposes not only the physical space for dropping one’s backpack and sleeping, but also an insider’s introduction to the way insiders live here – a good host is expected to show the guests around, share food and drinks with them, and engage in a good deal of informal talking about cultural matters and so on. This is where, as Bialski warns, things might get a bit perverse – though the host and the guest might never see each other again, for those several days and nights they might become closer with each other than with their actual “long-term” friends, forming friendships that are essentially “touristic” in form, even though they might be profound in content. There is a certain intuitive ethic to deciding that it’s time for one to move on, as much as one might enjoy the role of the host or that of the guest. In a way, artist residency centres in remote locations function as intimate tourism platforms as well, in the sense that they provide a safe “international” space for gradual adaptation to the local reality that might otherwise be tough to get into for outsiders coming from abroad. However, it is debatable which position is more favourable for reflecting on a particular place through artistic work – that of keeping a (critical?) distance or that of attempting to re-imagine oneself as a local for a limited time period (and thus potentially internalising some of the locals’ self-misconceptions).

image 4

familiarity <––––––> estrangement

The familiar is deceptive. We are accustomed to think that our domestic, local environment is by default the territory of the familiar, while our travelling destinations are the domain of the unknown. Yet Rebecca Solnit in her poetic book A Field Guide to Getting Lost forcefully demonstrates that the opposite might be the case when she mentions those uncanny situations “when some architectural detail or vista that has escaped me these many years says to me that I never did know where I was, even when I was home”. The uncanny is something previously thought to be familiar and ordinary that we suddenly feel estranged from. Home can sometimes become uncanny, unhomely (this is the literal translation of the German equivalent Unheimlich). Zygmunt Bauman notes in his conversation with Adrian Franklin, featured in the Transient Spaces publication, that in the contemporary world one may see the familiarity of the surrounding everyday world deteriorate all too quickly: “You are still in the same place, but the place is no longer what it was… The company you worked for disappeared, the partner of life (though emphatically not for life) has moved out and away, the rules of the game have changed without notice.” One thus loses control and becomes a stranger in one’s own habitat, without really moving anywhere. Conversely, distant destinations, even when visited for the first time, can be all too familiar because of the number of times they have been mediated to us by other people’s visual “trophies”. In many cases, as the world increasingly becomes a touristic commodity, seeing a new destination with our own eyes feels like a deja vu today: we have never been here before, but we feel as if we know this place; we have visited it on numerous occasions while looking at images taken by other travellers.

image 5

gaze <––––––> bodily involvement

The tourist gaze – the central archetype of touristic practice – is all about departure from the ordinary (work) and setting a clear limit between the leisurely observer and the “exotic” object of the gaze. As John Urry says in the third edition of his eponymous groundbreaking book, written in collaboration with Jonas Larsen, the tourist gaze “is directed to features of landscape and townscape which separate them off from everyday experience. Such aspects are viewed because they are taken to be in some sense out of the ordinary.” The tourist cannot really beinvolved in the place, as involvement belongs to the domain of work; much like in the state of daydreaming, he remains passive, only registering the blissful visions passing before his eyes. In this act of visual registering, the tourist gaze today is massively aided by various forms of photographic equipment, which “enable the gaze to be endlessly reproduced and recaptured”, according to Urry. Gaze-driven tourism is thus a purely symbolical activity that revolves around iconic signs, representations and control over one’s identity of detached spectator. To get physically involved, to dissolve in the place would mean to lose this identity. Such involvement can range from an individual traveller (possibly an artist) taking up some volunteer activity with the local community to a psychogeographer physically merging with the environment and refusing to be a guided spectator – to the point of losing a clear sense of the self and a strict distinction between the everyday and the sublime.

image 6

getting there <––––––> getting lost

“Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling.” Taking this quote by Walter Benjamin as an inspiration, Rebecca Solnit develops her poetic theory of getting lost as a metaphysical technique necessary to find one’s new identity, unconditioned by background, status, occupation etc. Maintaining, after Benjamin, that “to be lost is to be fully present”, she sets out to argue that in order to find something that one does not already know (a reference to Plato) one must embrace the unknown both within himself and out there in the world, to become lost to the world and lose the (familiar) world itself. Getting to a premeditated destination can only bring the predictable. While being lost in Solnit’s terms, one may know where one is, but at the same realizes that the world is larger than one’s knowledge of it, and this enables radical reinvention of one’s self within a new territory. This is in complete contrast with the tourist mode of mobility as described by Urry, which is carefully organised, and for which “getting back” on time is just as essential as “getting there”. Even though advertisements of tourist destinations might promise “life-changing” experiences, mass tourism at its core is deeply untransformative, as it demands a  return to the ordinary mode of productive activity once the tourist experience is “exhausted” – if only to begin anticipating another spectacular experience.

image 7

hospitality <––––––> hostility

Speaking of hospitality, Jacques Derrida points out a fundamental paradox: while pure, unconditional hospitality would seem to demand that the Other be welcomed without asking his name or identity (and thus inscribing the Other into the juridical order), in reality the very act of identifying and circumscribing the Other as a foreigner, a guest, a stranger already contains a germinal element of hostility. This reminds one of the folk wisdom that prescribes the following: one may feel at home as long as one keeps in mind that he is a guest. Furthermore, we often agree to provide hospitality to someone with whom we share a language, i. e. to someone who is, in classical terms, a citizen, a subject deemed worthy of hospitality, and not a barbarian coming from beyond our social microcosm. This is hospitality by law or hospitality by duty, rather than unconditional hospitality extended to anyone regardless of origin. The dramatism of this crucial distinction and its effects can be seen clearly when a “stranger” comes to an insular and close-knit community, where the division into “locals” and “aliens” is particularly pronounced (which is not a rare case with remote places where international artist residency centres are located).

image 8

spectacle <––––––> authenticity

With the proliferation of international chains of hotels, restaurants and other players of the tourism field, the once authentic (and potentially uncomfortable) “otherness” of distant places increasingly acquires the nature of a well-staged spectacle that follows precisely defined rules so as to not overwhelm the tourist with real alterity. Bauman argues that “[t]he right proportion of genuine or pretended ‘otherness’, source of pleasurable experience of novelty, challenge and adventure, and reassuring familiarity, source of the security feeling” is the fundamental property of the tourism industry today. Touristic travelling is not meant to provide any kind of acquisition of new knowledge or real unmediated cultural exchange with the “uncommodified” locals. If one goes to the seaside resorts of Turkey or Egypt, one will hardly meet any “real Turks” or “real Egyptians”. This is also true of the international academic and artist network – within them, one is likely to interact predominantly with people who share the same “extraterritorial”, global culture wherever one goes, and thus always remain within one’s comfort zone despite being very far from home. Coming back to artist residencies, it is perhaps worthwhile to consider how much they actually expose their visiting residents to real local authenticity, and how much they provide them with a kind of secure extra-territorialized “non-place” that allows these “creative tourists” to gaze upon the condensed “otherness” of the local communities as a spectacle (and to reproduce the latter in their pointedly and recognisably “site-specific” works).

image 9

tourist <––––––> vagabond

In his theoretical discussion of “liquid modernity” and “the tourist syndrome” as a metaphor for contemporary life, Zygmunt Bauman makes a fundamental distinction between the two archetypal figures of today’s world of mobility: the tourist and the vagabond. While the tourist is the one who chooses where he wants to be at a given moment, and is free to decide when he wants to move on (to another place, to another career, to another lifestyle), constantly exhausting experiences (which is the dominant feature of the liquid-modern world), the vagabond can stay in a place and maintain any kind of relationship only as long as he is wanted. When he is not wanted anymore, he must be evicted, deported, denied the right to a connection with the place. In other words, vagabonds are not in a position to decide when something no longer satisfies them or meets their needs. Contemporary artists are often concerned with the displaced and the oppressed, yet rarely seem to assume their positions themselves, moving around rather freely. Yet Bauman notes that the vagabond is not simply an opposite of the tourist, but rather an alter ego and a “broken-mirror reflection” of the latter, and in the constantly changing liquid-modern world one may become a displaced vagabond very easily, without moving an inch. If we consider the present economic factors and most artists’ precarious reliance on grants and other forms of funding, we will see that the divide between “nomadic” artists and vagabonds is not as wide as it seems.

image 10

wish <––––––> desire

Desire, according to Bauman, is something that must be cultivated, a long-term commitment to an object (a direction, a destination). It is something to which one dedicates a substantial period of one’s life – for instance, one may have a desire to quit work and travel across Southeast Asia, or to go and settle in a mountain hut somewhere in the Appalachians. Or, likewise, one may be waiting the whole year for that special time when one may finally return to that special destination that serves as a certain signpost of stability and well-being in one’s life. Rebecca Solnit also hints that it is desire itself that is the “stuff” that gives life a sense of meaning (while at the same time filling it with a sense of longing), rather than the object of desire per se. In contrast, wish is something to be acted upon instantly, something that produces an urgent impulse that must be translated into action and attainment of the object, a kind of instant gratification. One may see this mechanism at work in “last-minute” travel offers, “open-jaw” discount flights, and so on. It is also possible to trace it in the fairly opportunistic system of open calls for artist-in-residency applications, where it seems that quite often artists apply on impulse, just to “take advantage of the opportunity”, just to travel to a “different” location without any real underlying objective, just to keep on moving and collecting new places and experiences.


The text was originally published in “Tourists Like Us” book dedicated to contemporary art and critical tourism (released by Nida Art Colony and Vilnius Academy of Arts Press). The book can be purchased on artbooks.lt.

Books read (all titles available in the library of Nida Art Colony):

Coverley, Merlin. Psychogeography. Pocket Essentials, 2006

Derrida, Jacques and Dufourmantelle, Anne. Of Hospitality. Stanford University Press, 2000

Larsen, Jonas and Urry, John. The Tourist Gaze 3.0. SAGE Publications, 2012

Solnit, Rebecca. A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Penguin Books, 2006

Weitzel, Antje; Sorbello, Marina (eds). Transient Spaces: The Tourist Syndrome. Argobooks, 2010